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Ron Zook’s up and down, but is he out?

Ohio State v Illinois

Ohio State v Illinois

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Updated: December 17, 2011 8:38AM

CHAMPAIGN — Even for coach Ron Zook, the suddenness of this reversal of fortune is way out there.

From 6-0 to 6-4 — from 34 points a game to being held scoreless in the first half of the last four games — his Illini have gone from the mountaintop to jumping off a cliff.

Even in the up-and-down life of the Zooker, has he ever had a steeper roller coaster of a season?

‘‘I’ve thought about that,’’ he said, ‘‘talked to my wife about it. No, I haven’t.’’

Illinois, the only school that has gone to two BCS bowls and had two 10-loss seasons in the last decade, is compacting its schizophrenia into a single season.

Speculation is mounting that Zook will be gone after this season, although school officials would have some explaining to do if the Illini work a miracle for Zook and win their last two, against No. 15 Wisconsin on Saturday and at Minnesota on Nov. 26.

Fire a guy who’s 8-4 and has taken a struggling program to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in 19 years? That would look graceless.

Fire him at 7-5? That can happen. At 6-6? That seems like a lock.

Beyond wins and losses, Zook, who’s 34-49 in nearly seven seasons at Illinois, has this problem: A good segment of Illini Nation never has warmed up to him. They don’t think he’s smart enough, and they don’t think he’s a good coach.

Winning can overcome that, but only to a point. In case anybody needs to be reminded, college athletics is a big business. And if Zook’s not helping sell tickets, that’s an
issue at a school like Illinois, which is averaging 50,123 at renovated Memorial Stadium, which holds 60,670.

The man who will decide Zook’s fate, newly hired athletic director Mike Thomas, is doing what he should do for a 6-4 coach: Let the season play out.

‘‘I’ve said from Day 1 I’ll assess the situation at the end of the season and we’ll go from there,’’
Thomas said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Zook wasn’t saying much, either.

‘‘This [news conference] thing is about our football team,’’ Zook said during his opening remarks. ‘‘It’s not about me. It’s not about my future. If you feel compelled to talk about that, then my part’ll be over with.’’

After doing his usual 20 minutes, Zook made good on that vow, walking out when a reporter asked how his team’s dealing with the distraction of its coach’s uncertain future.

‘‘You just couldn’t let it go, could you?’’ he said, grinning wryly as he left the room.

Zook, who has two years left on a contract worth $1.75 million a year, didn’t want to talk about it after practice Monday, either.

But he did.

‘‘My issues are these last two weeks and this football team,’’ he said. ‘‘They’ll do what they want to do. If they want me, I want to stay. If they don’t, we’ll go do something else.’’

The rumors run the gamut, from Zook already being told he’s gone to Illinois considering whether it wants to come up with the buyout, which is $1.3 million for each of the two years.

The buyout would be no obstacle.

Whether Zook has been told he’s gone is difficult to say. He clearly appears stressed out, a condition that was aggravated by the bizarre situation of linebacker Trulon Henry, who was shot in the hand Sunday at a party that was supposed to be a safe alternative to the bar scene for Zook’s players.

‘‘Hopefully, we learned a lesson,’’ Zook said. ‘‘I don’t know what the lesson is, to be honest with you — other than you shouldn’t be out after midnight. Nothing happens after midnight that’s any good.’’

Has the clock struck 12 on Zook?

Empty seats. New athletic director. Team in freefall.

That’s where the hands seem to be pointing.

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